The lotus plant was mostly harvested for its seeds and leaves for use in medicines and as a source of food. But in recent years, the spiritual flower and its reedy stems have started being cut, dried and woven into exquisite textiles soft enough to rival the purities of silk and lightness of cotton.
In 2009, luxury fabric and garment maker, Loro Piana began working with local villagers in Myanmar to develop the water flower into a fabric. Outlined in a video on the Italian company’s website, making lotus textiles is a laborious process, with some 6,500 lotus stems required to make a single length of hand woven fabric. The whole process, from the gathering of fiber to the spinning and weaving, is articulated by hand, before returning the yarn to Loro Piana factories in Italy to be woven. From here, the luxury cloth becomes a scarf or blazer that sells for some $5,600 under the Loro Piana brand.
The flower fabric is also produced by Awen Delavel and his fair-trade mill, Samatoa. Within the walls of Delavel’s Lotus Center in Battamabang, which was established in 2003, the team work with Cambodian women directly, providing quality training, work and an income for the locals. The sustainable design studio offers pattern making, grading, prototyping, dressmaking, low impact dying, embroidery, and printing processes. Meanwhile, Delavel has been able to play around with cost efficiencies on site, experimenting with the production of the precious but expensive fiber to reduce overhead costs. According to Delavel, the first liter of fabric costs some $200 to make, with costings decreasing as production levels increase and quality improves over time.
For Samatoa, it takes 32,000 lotus stems to make a little over 90m of fabric. Beginning with plant harvesting on Lotus Lake in Kamping Puy, stems are cut and gathered by local women in the morning with any rough edges and knobs removed. Within a three-day window, the stems are then bunched, trimmed and sliced. Each stem offers 20 to 30 threads inside, which are then pulled and hung to dry. Dried, the fiber is laid on a spinning frame, then winders for a warping process, and then wound on bamboo bobbins into yarn. Still moist, the yarn is woven on looms into 90m batches by hand. This process is fiddly and takes six weeks to complete.
Creating the lotus fabric is, itself, a handmade artisanal process. However, once created, the incredibly soft, stain resistant and waterproof flower fabric, is certainly worth all the hard work - turning garments into treasures. Samatoa was even given the ‘Award of Excellence ’ by the United Nations' sub-branch, UNESCO back in 2012, for their new ‘lotus and silk fabric.’
There is more opportunity for vertically integrated firms to set up in Cambodia and surrounding Southeast Asia, working just as effectively as Loro Piana and Samatoa with locals. Meanwhile, other forms could spend time researching efficient methods of producing the yarn, to add to the research of Samatoa, as well as developing a bigger variety of yarn counts and fabric weights. From here, it's only a matter of seasons before more luxury build their collections around the strength and beauty of the lotus flower.